Monday, April 26, 2010

Serenity Movie Weekend: Did She Kill Him With Her Brain?

When it comes to murder mysteries on Lifetime, there are two categories: the heroine is accused of murder, and spends the rest of the movie to clear her name; and the heroine is accused of murder, but you're not quite sure if she's innocent.

Summer Glau has played a genius girl who has been damaged by government (Serenity/Firefly) or by an accident (Dollhouse), and also a butt-kicking android protecting the future (Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles). It has been rare for her to play a typical girl. Last night, though, she got her chance in a new Lifetime Movie Network film called Deadly Honeymoon. She played Lindsay, a new bride on her honeymoon with her husband, Trevor (Chris Carmack). It looks like the couple is well-matched, but looks can be deceiving. Typical murder plot for Lifetime.
The couple meets a fellow passenger, Kim, and three Hungarians that Trevor hopes will help out in a new business he and his wife want to start. However, Trevor would rather party than be with Lindsay, and even one of the Hungarians tries to make out with her.
Then, Trevor goes missing while Lindsay is found in a daze in a hallway under the ship. Is Trevor dead? Did Lindsay do it?

Now, if Lindsay were innocent, without a doubt, the movie will center on her efforts to clear her name. Not so here. The attention also centers on a vacationing FBI agent (Zoe McLellan) who gathers the details about the couple, and the Hungarians. Meanwhile Lindsay is trying to deal with all that has happened. A scene where she talks to her parents through a laptop is heartbreaking. Summer really sells this as a girl who goes from being in a daze to total devastation.
The FBI agent starts to wonder if Lindsay is as innocent as she looks. Lindsay admits there are a few things she didn't mention, but mostly because she's scared what Trevor's family would think.
There is a later scene where Lindsay talks to the captain about what happened. I won't describe it, but it is also devastating for a different reason.
As for how everything is resolved, at least one TV critic was hoping for a more surprising ending, but I thought it made sense.
I'm hoping this movie will open up more chances for Summer to be a typical girl in romantic or dramatic situations, rather than a Terminator or wounded computer genius.
Then again, we're also crossing our fingers that NBC will add The Cape to its 2010 fall lineup. If so, she'll become a crime-fighting blogger...and that's pretty good, too.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Serenity Movie Weekend: The Mothman of Justice?

When I went to Anaheim Wizard World last week, Jewel Staite talked about her new SyFy Movie, Mothman. She said it's one of those guilty pleasure type of movies, that she hopes will get a bigger audience than Mega-Piranha.

We're not sure if that will happen, but the movie turned out to be a weird hybrid between I Know What You Did Last Summer and Charles Bronson's character in Death Wish.

How? Well, let's start with the "I Know What You Did..." part: a bunch of teens, including Katie (played by Jewel), tease the younger brother of one of the group about the Mothman. As a result, they wind up drowning the brother, and Katie is forced in the coverup. Ten years later, she's a feature reporter for a weekly newspaper in Washington D.C. She's assigned to Point Pleasant, West Virginia to visit the annual Mothman Festival. We'll give you one guess where Katie is from.

Of course, the events of ten years ago take a toll on the old gang. It's not long before the dreaded Mothman emerges from mirrors, mobile home surfaces and even TV screens to kill off Katie's friends. The creature itself reminded me one a monster from Scooby-Doo, or a creepy grey ghost with moldy wings. It's a mothman, right?
Also, the movie sets up the whole plot in 20 minutes, as if it's late for an appointment. A little more development would have been nice. These guys may be guilty but they're people, not targets.

Jewel does a good job as the reporter forced to face her past. She does have her moment when she goes all Ellen Ripley on the Mothman, but does she escape its vengeance?

I do have to say that someone else steals this movie, only because he has an extensive history with the Mothman. Jerry Leggio is great at blind Frank Waverly, who knows a lot about the Mothman and how he goes after those who have escaped justice. That's why I suggest the Mohtman may be like Charles Bronson. Too bad they had to make Frank a little too crazy towards the end, even if he did have the backstory to explain it.

Another weird moment is when Derek (Connor Fox) bursts into the local beauty shop, tells everyone to leave, and starts breaking mirrors so the Mothman won't get them.

It's also interesting the movie adds some details of the original Mothman legend in the 1960's, but I wonder why they decided to make it a vigilante, and also the spirit of an Indian chief tortured by settlers in the 19th Century.

Looking at this movie, I wonder how Red with Felicia Day will play out. Will she go from werewolf hunter to werewolf? I hope not. Her character could be a Syfy series all by itself, even if you add a repentant werewolf.
Yeah, that sounds familiar, but what movie on SyFy doesn't?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Juliet Landau Asks How Others Take Flight

After making a documentary about how Gary Oldman made a music video by a Jewish Hip-Hop group, Juliet Landau has a new project.

She's talking to fellow actors and musicians about what inspires them. She also asks some advice about how she can market her documentary, Take Flight. Her interviews are currently at her documentary's website, and in YouTube, Her line of questions are similar: she asks about how they got into acting or music, what project made them feel like a kid playing, what would they film if they had a cellphone camera that Oldman used, and how would they market her film.

The list is interesting: Michael Rosenbaum (formerly Lex Luthor from Smallville, Sam Anderson from Lost and Angel, Harry Groener (the Mayor from Buffy), Kat Von D, Amy Acker from Angel, Dollhouse and now Happy Town, director Andrea Romano who has played a major part on Warner Brothers animation, and musician David J from Bauhaus.
Their responses are even better. Rosenbaum said he got into acting because he was influenced by Saturday Night Live in the 1980's. Acker and David J has two very interesting ways to promote Take Flight. Think 30-second ad and ringtones. Groener says if someone game him a cellphone camera, he'd be filming a German oom-pah band. Anderson reveals that working on Angel was fun because it's only place where he could hear "flaming vampires on the set, please". Romano also explains why seeing an achor build a character can be a great thing to see.

It's fascinating how Landau gets very interesting comments from these artists. Hopefully, we'll get more very soon.

Wondercon: News From Dark Horse

Dark Horse had been the home for comic books from most of the Whedonverse, except for Angel.
Fans were hoping to get big news from the comic book company about what to expect from Buffy, Dr. Horrible or maybe the Guild.
Spokesman Jeremy Atkins and writer Randy Stradley said they didn't have any big news. However, they did say they were very excited about the future. The latest on Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 8 is linked to the shocking news that Angel is Twilight. They did say issue 34 this month will actually surprise a lot of fans who wished Buffy and Angel would be together. Let's just say if such a thing happened, now would not be the right time. It's Xander-and-Willow-kissing-at-the-wrong-time all over again (this was from season three, by the way).

Meanwhile, they did talk about the new Serenity/Firefly projects. One of them is the new Wash story, "Float Out", written by Patten Oswalt. That's coming in June. Atkins revealed that Oswalt was actually unsure if he could do the job after he was "out-geeked" by MTV reporter Rick Marshall. The other big story is the long-awaited "Shepherd's Tale", which reveals the back story of Shepherd Book. It will be released as a hardcover in November. Atkins said that Ron Glass, who played Book, called him and said he story was inspired. He even said it would interesting enough to bring back he role on TV, if that happened.
Atkins says Serenity has been a very popular title in Dark Horse. "While the television world may be done with Firefly", he says, "we're nowhere near it."

Several fans asked questions about the Guild, which just started its three-issue run, and whether Dollhouse could get a second life as a comic book. "Joss got his heartbroken again with another great series that people got behind," he says. "If it does happen, it would be a little while in the future." However, Atkins says Dark Horse would be happy to work with Joss if a Dollhouse comic book was possible.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dollhouse: A Different Kind Of Toy Story

As some of you know, Smart Pop Books had a contest recently asking fans to write an essay on the late great Fox show, Dollhouse. The top 15 winners would have their entries published and put in a book that will be released this fall.
About a hundred people submitted entries, including me. The results were finally revealed....and I didn't make it.
Maybe my entry was terrible, or too profound or too weird, or the competition was really that tight. I'm guessing it was one close contest.
All I know is that they got Jane Espenson as a judge. If there's anyone who knows good writing, it is her.

Therefore, here is my entry. Judge for yourself.

Question: what do Dollhouse and Toy Story have in common?

To the hard core Joss Whedon fan, the answer is obvious. Just two years before he turned a little teen horror comedy called Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a classic TV cult hit, he was involved in the screenplay of Toy Story, which revolutionized animated films. It also led to getting an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Last fall, Toy Story and its sequel were both re-released as a 3-D movie double feature as a prelude to the next movie, also in 3-D, next summer. It turned out to be a big hit, and the planned two-week engagement wound up being extended. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly* revealed that Whedon wanted to use Barbie to help rescue Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the first movie's final act, where they were in danger of benig abandoned by Andy's family. It makes sense for a man who believes in girl power, or in this case doll power. Whedon said in the article he wanted Barbie as "Sarah Connor in a pink convertible." It would have been worth it to hear her say "come with me if you want to live" more than a decade before Summer Glau does on a TV version of the Terminator franchise. Producer Matt Guggenheim said in the article Mattel objected to using Barbie because they thought girls project their own ideas of what Barbie should be. Giving Barbie her own voice, Mattel allegedly thought, wouldn't become a girl's ideal. After Toy Story became successful, Mattel allowed Barbie to be part of Toy Story 2. That led to several Barbie CGI movies which are mostly fairy tales. Maybe it didn't think little girls would be ready for Barbie the Vampire Slayer, although they thought Barbie and Ken could fill Mulder and Scully's shoes in a special X-Files edition of the two dolls.

Mattel's alleged objection, however, stuck with me because it could be the same attitude Rossum has towards its Actives in all its Dollhouses. An Active is there to fulfill a client's fantasy or need. If you give an Active its own voice, it may not become a person's ideal. It would become, well, too human to do the job it's supposed to do. At least too human for Rossum's comfort.

So, could Dollhouse be the dark side of Toy Story, where clients could be like fair and loving like Andy, or evil like Sid, or somewhere in between?
That's not too far out, really, although there are other ways to connect the movie with the TV show.

Let's start with the idea that both Toy Story and Dollhouse involve people treating people like toys. A child defines what a toy should be, just as a client decides what an Active should be. Through the short history of Dollhouse, consider some of the "roles" that Actives have played: a geisha, midwife, backup singer, nerdy fan, birthday party guest, a Topher clone, blind girl, safecracker, wife, mother, solider, lover, doctor...and a few others Barbie never had the chance to do. However, the Actives are treated like what toys are supposed to be: living yet blank objects until someone wants to play with them. They are not supposed to form attachments with each other, like Echo does with Sierra and Victor. They are not supposed to share affection, or have "man reactions" on their own. A Doll is just there to fulfill a fantasy. It's not supposed to have one of its own. That's only allowed in Pixar movies.

Usually, the Dollhouses cater to clients who have a lot of money, and are just like Andy, a person who treats his toys fairly. When the first Toy Story movie starts, he's using his toys to play out a bank robbery, with Woody as the hero who saves the day. Compare that to a client asking to have an Active to play more mature roles, like a romantic date, a mercenary rescuing a kidnapped child or a safecracker. After the client is finished "playing" with his Active, it gets "put back on the shelf" after its imprint is wiped clean. In the Toy Story world, the toys know full well what they are, and just enjoy life being part of a child's world. The Actives just wander around, paint or practice yoga. As far as the Dollhouse is concerned, Actives are toys with no thoughts in their heads. Having thoughts would make them more complicated than a Mr. Potato Head, whether he's a toy or the Pixar version with Don Rickles' voice.

There are clients who are like Sid, the evil kid who likes to break toys, or make them even worse. Remember the Erector set spider with the bald baby doll head? The best example of a "Sid" is Nolan Kinnard, a major player inside Rossum. One day, he meets a girl named Priya at a party, and decides he must possess her, literally. Using a mental health clinic that he owns, he drives Priya insane through the use of drugs. Then he sends her to the Dollhouse, where she is turned into Sierra, an Active who is his own personal plaything. Calling her his girlfriend would be too charitable. In "Needs", Sierra becomes aware of her past as Priya, and confronts Nolan about it. Not only does he admit it, he says she is going to return to him anytime he wants. He's right, because Sierra's sudden self-awareness was really part of a plan by Dr. Claire Saunders to have the Actives resolve unresolved issues, and become obedient again. This didn't quite work with all of them. It's also ironic, since the one who came up with the plan is later revealed to be an Active, too. More on that later.
Then when Nolan demands that he keep Sierra permanently, he uses his position in Rossum, and pressure from fellow company bigwig Matthew Harding, to get what he wants. However, what he winds up getting is Sierra as Priya, her former self. She tells Nolan she never loved him, but loves someone else whose name she can't explain. When Nolan start abusing what was supposed to be his personal toy, she winds up stabbing him to death. Sid should be glad his mutant toys never struck back like that, or that Woody just warned him to take care of his toys.

Another example is Hearn, who was Sierra's handler. Adelle DeWitt figures out that he has been raping Sierra, but he also admits it readily. He says when you see women who are willing to do anything for you, you're bound to take advantage. She gives him a way out by sending him to kill Mellie, who's been helping FBI agent Paul Ballard expose the Dollhouse. When Hearn does attack her, she gets a call from Dewitt, telling her there are three flowers in a vase. The phrase turns Mellie from victim to Hearn's assassin, but it also shows she is a sleeper Active. She takes care of Hearn just as Sierra took care of Nolan. It's quite a lesson to both Nolan and Hearn not to abuse toys, whether they own one or not.

There's also a list of clients who are somewhere between Andy and Sid. That is, they may seem to have the best of intentions at first, but their needs may become too dark or uncomfortable. Richard Connell, the client in "The Target", wanted a companion on a whitewater rafting trip. What he really wanted was a companion for a hunting trip, with Echo as his prey. She's barely able to escape, but the Dollhouse is stunned about how they were fooled by this man, and whether rouge Active Alpha is responsible.

Joel Mynor, internet whiz, is the only client on the show who is able to justify why he needs an Active. In "Man on the Street", he explains that he wanted to capture a moment that never was: surprising his wife with a new house that he bought through his internet creation, "Bouncy the Rat". That moment never happened because she died in a car crash just before she got to the house. Paul still thinks Joel's fantasy is bad because he's using a person who is fulfilling his fantasy because she lost her free will. However, Joel turns it around on Paul, asking him whether his fantasy is saving Echo from her life as an Active, and what he hopes to get out of it. In a way, Paul hopes to find redemption through a toy, in this case Echo.

Later, Paul discovers that he's no better than Mynor or any other Dollhouse client. This happens when he learns that Mellie is a sleeper Active. It's a fact that surprises her because his relationship with Mellie had become intimate. He wonders if her affections towards him are real or programmed. It gets to the point that he doesn't care, and still has sex with her. Afterwards, when she asks when they're going to find Dollhouse clients, Paul finds his own mirror.

He would be surprised if he learned that Adelle DeWitt, who manages the Los Angeles Dollhouse, had been posing as "Miss Lonelyhearts" so she could enjoy her own toy...Victor, or Roger as she calls him. Some may wonder how this is different than what Nolan or Hearn did to Sierra. While these two men abused Sierra to get what they want, all Adelle had to do was have Victor imprinted. She didn't force him to have sex with her. He was just programmed to do that. He is her toy, and he is there to be her ideal. Victor/Roger is a life-sized version of Ken, only better...or at least that's what she tells herself. It's still abuse because she's taking advantage of a man who has no free will. Rather than take her chances at parties or even singles bars, she finds a quick yet empty solution with an Active. It's not as violent as what Nolan and Hearn did, but it's still abuse. She even tries to enjoy one last night of passion with Victor/Roger before his term as an Active ends. He is reluctant because, as Sierra told Nolan, he says there's someone else he loves, but can't explain who she is.
Why did she did she think she could get away with it? Maybe she thinks she's entitled to borrowing a "toy" because she thinks the Dollhouse is her own toy store, if she doesn't get caught. That's what being head of a Dollhouse means, until Matthew Harding tells her she is seen as a toy to those who are really in charge, including himself and Clive Ambrose. That may have been the moment she started having doubts about what the Dollhouse is really doing, well before Ballard did.

The connections between Toy Story and Dollhouse don't stop there. While all the toys in Toy Story are aware of who they are, the exception is Buzz Lightyear, who is convinced he's a real Space Ranger who can fly. This puts him in a rivalry with Woody, who had enjoyed his status as Andy's favorite toy. He finds out the truth by seeing a commercial about himself, and finds out the hard way he can't go to infinity, but can go straight down. Through friendship from Woody and the other toys, he gets over this problem.
In the Dollhouse, there is no rivalry among the Actives. They just know one thing: "I try to do my best". For a while the number one Active was Whiskey, who would later become Dr. Claire Saunders. Whiskey would be the most popular Active, until Alpha decides to make Echo the top Active. He does that by scarring Whisky and killing some Actives. He did this because it was love at first sight for him, He did this to earn her love, but would not get it. Love was not important to her. She didn't get "girl reactions" when she was with Alpha. It was more like fear when she saw what he did. Still, her fear was gone when she was wiped, and prepared for her next role that a person bought her to fulfill.

Dr. Saunders could be considered the Dollhouse version of Buzz. As he always thought he was a real crime-fighting hero, Claire thought she's always been the physician of the Dollhouse because she was programmed that way. When Dr. Saunders discovers her Active past, she isn't interesting in learning who she was. She just knows who she is now.
That would have been the end, until "Vows", when Dr. Saunders is busy taunting Topher. She is still dealing with the fact that her past and present is all a lie, and that Topher made her. She later seduces him, claiming that Topher made her to hate him so that he would eventuallty win her love. He disagrees, because he wanted her to hate him to remind him that it's partially his fault Alpha went mad, which led to Saunders, as Whisky being scarred. He's not the client here. Dr. Saunders' process of discovering her true self is much more complicated that what Buzz had to accept.
It would have been interesting to see how Claire would decide that, even if she was an Active, she can be a real person by just saying that she was. However, that would never happen, as her body would be taken over by Clyde Randolph, one of the co-founders of Rossum, in "The Hollow Men."

However, one Doll did manage to say he was real by saying so. It was none other than Paul Ballard. Throughout the series, he considered Dolls as people who may as well be murdered, even though they didn't know it. He considered those who used them, even for the best of intentions, to be cruel. He had to be turned into a Doll to be saved after Alpha severely damaged his brain in "A Love Supreme". At least he has Mellie, who is also a Doll again when her retirement ended in "The Left Hand." When they infiltrate Rossum headquarters in Tucson in "The Hollow Men", she asks him why is she there with him. She keeps reminding him that they're not real, and their love for each other is a program. In fact, it was just a few days before when he looked at Mellie again, and wondered if she was really all right now that she will never be free from being an Active. Now, he accepts the fact that he is a Doll, but also declares he is still as real as anyone. That includes their love for each other. He may have gotten the inspiration from how Sierra and Victor fell for each other, even as Dolls. It's just as important as Buzz sees that he may be a toy, but can be something special because of what he can do to save his friends.

There could also be a link between Woody in Toy Story 2 and Senator Daniel Perrin, Rossum's man in the U.S. Senate, and how an Active can be considered a commodity rather than a fantasy. In the movie, toy store owner Al McWhiggin finds Woody because he wants to sell him to a museum in Japan. To sweeten the deal, he gets someone to "spruce up" Woody so that he looks like he's in mint condition. That's not too far off from that Rossum did to one Daniel Perrin. He had the pedigree to be someone important in Washington, but not the desire. That changed when Rossum used its Dollhouse in Washington D.C. to "improve" his brain. It had hoped he would give them some clout in Washington, and pass regulations that would favor Rossum. It would lead to him marrying his handler, and starting a campaign to "expose" Rossum's unethical medical experiments, which would eventually exonerate them. The plan almost works, but Rossum winds up changing Perrin again, with more ambition towards a new goal: the White House. Somehow, Rossum is determined to turn the nation, and eventually the world, into its own Dollhouse. They would create toys that are no longer playthings anyone can control. but wind up controlling us.

It's interesting that Joss Whedon would be involved in two projects that would look at humanity and identity. One would be Toy Story, which looks at toys when they're not at play, and how they can be as human as we are. The other would be Dollhouse, which looks at life-sized toys made of flesh and blood, and how they can be used and abused just like any toy. The movie would make millions of dollars for Disney, while the TV show would face a premature end.

The final results are also very different. In a Pixar world, the toys sing and dance, and are happy that they're together. In a Dollhouse world, the world is not so cheery. In about ten years, it becomes a mess filled with Dumbshows and Tech Heads, Butchers attacking Actuals, while the most powerful change bodies as often as they change suits, or exist in multiple bodies. It's the fulfillment of the professor's prediction from "Man on the Street", when he says Mankind will cease to matter if technology robs it of its true self. The only hope for a happy ending arrives when those who invented the tech that ruined the world use it again to fix their mistake, and sacrifice themselves as penance.

While a scene that was never part of Toy Story inspired this comparison with Dollhouse, there's another scene that was almost part of the Dollhouse pilot that's also important. It's where Topher told Boyd in the unaired pilot, "Echo" that everyone who lives in the Dollhouse, even the staff, are toys, and those who play with the Actives little children. That statement becomes very ironic, since it's eventually revealed Boyd was the toymaker all along.
Maybe the lesson here is that we should not treat others like mindless toys. It's a lesson that hopefully corporations, and people of major influence, should learn....or they will find out the average person isn't the same as that old Barbie they used to have.